We are intoxicated by technology. We are seduced by its power, its speed, its gadgetry and its promise to solve the problems of human suffering. As those problems get bigger and as technology offers new solutions, low tech is unlikely to make a comeback. Technology is a carrot we have trotted after for a long time, and as it speeds up, we gallop after it.
But high tech does not stay high tech forever. Nor does it march in a straight line. The unanticipated and unintended consequences of new technology can be as significant as its promise, especially if we proceed without comprehending the scope of technology's impact on humanity and the planet.
High tech implies progress, while low tech feels outdated. A stone wheel, an arrowhead, a shuttle loom were once high tech; today they are museum pieces. Phonographs, at one time considered high tech, are now collectibles, as are 45s and LPs. (See, for example, the offerings on eBay.) High tech becomes low tech with longevity and familiarity and as old technologies are replaced.
Even the most celebrated technologies of the past are now regarded as low tech. Take the Panama Canal, an unparalleled feat of human vision, perseverance and engineering 85 years ago. Standing at the mouth of the canal, in the northern port city of Colon, peering out at the cargo ships, you get an overwhelming sense that you're witnessing an archaic process. Heavy ships traversing the surface of the globe, loaded down with computer parts, petroleum products and Pokemon cards, pause in mid-voyage to pass slowly through the strategically placed Isthmus of Panama before continuing their journey to another part of the world. Someday nanotechnology may make manufacturing products from raw materials in one part of the world and shipping them to another a thing of the past.
In the coming years, high tech will increasingly look low tech as we solve problems by turning to biology and microscopic particles where we once turned to engineering and information technologies. Today a rig churning and cranking to sop up an oil spill mars an ocean landscape; tomorrow genetically engineered micro-organisms will be sent into the ocean to clean up an oil spill invisibly.
In our daily lives, high-tech experiences are increasingly replacing low-tech ones, and if we manage to design every square inch of the planet, then every experience will be a simulated one. Nature museums are cropping up in urban centers, a clear signal that the environment is in as much need of preservation as are arrowheads, shields and shuttle looms. Simulation has become the most popular experience in modern American culture. A North American child may play his snowboarding video four times a week, but he whizzes down a mountain only four days a year.
Simulation need not be noisy. On the grounds of the J. Paul Getty Center in Los Angeles, a beautiful stream stair-steps down the garden. Man-made, it is a symbol of how willing we are to substitute our natural environment for a world of our making, of our own image, but not without huge consequences.